Many of you guys have mentioned your enjoyment of Jim Wexell's work, so what better way to get some pre-camp information and thoughts than to go directly to one of our favorite sources. Wexell has covered the Steelers for many, many years, and has two published books about the franchise: Tales From Behind the Steel Curtain and Pittsburgh Steelers: Men of Steel. Rumor has it that he's got another book coming out sometime soon, so we'll have to keep our eye out for that one.
Anyway, Jim was kind of enough to answer some questions as summer and training camp inches closer. Great, informative answers too.
1) We've read your columns on the Steelers draft, so we'll spare you the mundane, 'what did you think of our draft?' Instead, I'm curious which of our rookies do you think might have the biggest impact in 2008? If you think it's Mendenhall, do you think any of our later picks might surprise us fans?
Wexell: Just by the process of elimination it would have to be Mendenhall. I think we all know why. I think Limas Sweed will provide the team with a deep threat but little more his rookie year. I hope I'm wrong, but receivers take time. Bruce Davis will be like Sweed, a deep threat, but at his position that means a rotational third-down pass-rush threat. He'll do well on special teams, too. If you watch the Senior Bowl closely you'll see Davis beating his teammates down the field on most kicks.
As for some of the later picks who might surprise, I don't see Tony Hills or Dennis Dixon helping much. They play difficult positions and have health issues as well. I came away from a conversation impressed with Mike Humpal. He was a two-time state HS wrestling champ in Iowa; that's like winning in PA -- you have to respect that in that state. He was also a state runner-up in the high hurdles. I realize winning a sprint in Iowa isn't nearly as impressive as winning an Iowa wrestling crown, but that's an interesting mix of athleticism. He also has the mentality for special teams, so that's where I see the opening for him to succeed. Ryan Mundy has a couple of people ahead of him at FS, and I wouldn't rule Mike Lorello or Grant Mason out of that mix, either. The undrafted guys to watch, according to one scout, are LB Patrick Bailey and DL Martavius Prince.
2) Can you clarify to us how many players an organization is able to put on the Physically Unable to Perform list at any given time? As a follow-up, if Dennis Dixon and Tony Hills are not both able to be stashed away at the same time either because rules prohibit doing so or because they're not -quite- physically limited enough to be placed there, would it be too risky to have either on the practice squad where they might be snatched up by a competitor? My general concern is that we may waste roster spots on these two in 2008 while they either get stronger (Hills) or more healthy and acclamated to the pro-game (Dixon). Thoughts on that convoluted mess of a question?
Wexell: I didn't look up the rule, but it's never come into question. I seem to remember one year they had three on the PUP list heading into camp, but I don't believe there are even three candidates this year. The Steelers aren't really "stashers". They believe in getting guys on the field as soon as they can. Dixon and Hills could both be placed on the list, but the team wants them to practice, to learn, to grow. I believe they could get away with putting Dixon on the practice squad, but probably not Hills. Yet, if they do put Hills on the practice squad they could make sure he alerts them if any teams come calling. Then the Steelers could activate him if they wish. It won't be a problem.
3)We've gotten a kick out of reading the pundits predictions for the Browns in 2008. Clearly they're one of the more dangerous offenses in football, but being an insider with access to locker room and organizational dynamics, do you have any thoughts on how the Browns upcoming season now that they have expectations and a slew of new (highly-paid) faces on the team? If all goes according to plan, their free agent acquisitions could help propel them to a playoff berth, but from the looks of their schedule, I could see a scenario where they stumble out of the gates and hit the panic button at the quarterback position.
Wexell: I respect the Browns. I really like what they've done with their D-line and I understand Shaun Rogers is a beast right now, so they've finally done something about their run defense. Their problem will be at QB (at times) and RB, where Jamal Lewis poses no threat. He's good for them right now -- like a 16-13 pitcher who gives you innings -- but that's the position they will look to improve next. They have little depth at RB. The biggest adjustment the Browns will have to make is dealing with the high expectations. The Steelers understand well how this works. It's easy to be the underdog, as the Browns were last year, but this year will be different. A lot will depend on the QB and HC, and I have little faith in either. I can't get the Derek Anderson of Oregon State out of my head, and I also believe the Steelers know how to defend him right now. Crennel will now be asked to coach from the position of a favorite, and that's a lot more difficult. Ask Bill Cowher.
4) We'd be remiss if we didn't get your insights on the offensive line situation. Care to share your prediction on who will start the 2008 season along the line, from left to right? As a quick follow-up, any insights on Jason Capizzi? I'd love to believe he's developing and on track to contribute in 2008 or 2009, but neither you nor other reporters has given me much reason to think that's realistic.
Wexell: From left to right, Marvel Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon. Nothing original there, I know, but the coaches don't think Max Starks should push Colon inside. That would be the line of my choice. I want Colon playing RG and Starks playing RT. I don't care as much about mobility at OG as I do the ability to block the monstrous DTs and NTs they see any more. As for Capizzi, he's been in a boot all spring, so there's nothing to say about him, other than the Steelers obviously liked what they saw last camp -- as we all did -- because they brought him back. The question about him, as anyone who's followed him from Pine-Richland and through Pitt, is his head. There've been so many rumors about his wild nature that you wondered whether the Steelers cut him for that reason. But since they brought him back, that question is gone. I talk to him often and he seems like a great kid to me. I think it's best to just let him surprise this camp, as opposed to last year when all of the reporters raced to call him the camp sleeper of the year.
5) We're on pins and needles waiting to see how the Max Starks situation plays out. Any chance that the organization works out a longer term deal with Starks and his agent before the season?
Wexell: Just as I asked the day he was tagged: How do the Steelers expect to work out a long-term deal with a guy making $7M in base salary? Max is a nice guy, but I don't think he's so nice as to give all of his leverage away to a team that doesn't see him as a starter. (I have heard a rumor that Mike Tomlin apologized to Max, said they made a mistake last year, and that he'll be a starter this year, but so far the OC and OL coach seem to have the same opinion of Max that they had last year.)
6) You're a busy man that writes for a number of publications. Do you find that you mold your opinions and your writing based on the medium you're writing for - be it the newspaper, online columns, or your fantastic articles for the Steelers Digest publication? We all read your stuff and know you call it like you see it, but as a media member, how much pressure, if any, is there to bite your tongue at times in order to preserve the rapport you've successfully built with the franchise and its players for so many years now?
Wexell: Biting my tongue hurts too much. And thank you for the word "fantastic", by the way. I appreciate it, and thanks for reading. But the column in Steelers Digest is the one the players read. I've learned -- and Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley have been a big influence in this regard -- that you can criticize without being an asshat. I just refrain from calling names. Criticize like a coach would, and always have the guts to come back to the locker room the next day just in case a player wants to confront you. Sometimes the players think you're being a jerk for criticizing them and then having the gall to approach and ask another question, but I do that just in case the player wants to confront me on anything I've written. Not that I'm confrontational, but the player deserves the chance to talk things through.
Many thanks to Mr. Wexell for taking the time! Be sure to catch his columns in Steelers Digest, as well as his work for the Tribune-Democrat, SteelCityInsider.com, and many others.